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16 days, 16 stories

Dawson Ruhl

Dawson speaks to the insidious societal problems of patriarchy, power imbalance and men’s entitlement, and reflects on how he learned as a therapist to ask the right questions and seek social change. Eradicating gender-based violence must be a collective decision made by us all.

Funded by the State Library of Western Australia, 16 Days, 16 Stories is a courageous new collection of stories presented in solidarity with survivors of domestic violence, recorded for the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign.

Dawson speaks to the insidious societal problems of patriarchy, power imbalance and men’s entitlement, and reflects on how he learned as a therapist to ask the right questions and seek social change. Eradicating gender-based violence must be a collective decision made by us all.

Content Warning: Please be advised that the following story contains themes of family and domestic violence that some listeners may find distressing. If you have been impacted by family or domestic violence and are in need of support, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service.

Copyright © 2019 Dawson Ruhl

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by Dawson Ruhl. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

Production by Rita Saggar and Claudia Mancini. Recording by Terri Bellem.

Photo by Claudia Mancini.

View Story Transcript

My name is Dawson Ruhl and I work for stopping family violence and I’m a trainer, and I’ve been a counsellor and psychotherapist developing and working in the whole area of men’s behaviour change for quite a few years as well as social justice reform initiatives to try to change the way systems respond to DV as well.

I’d had a period of time when I was back in the US and when I came back[here]in the late eighties, I started working for Relationships Australia and in the Fremantle branch and, at some point or another Relationships Australia got a, a contract for funding to start a men’s behaviour change program for perpetrators of domestic violence.

And I’d been a therapist for almost, I don’t know, eight, nine years. Up until that point I saw, you know, I think I was relatively seasoned. And they asked me if I would be the kind of, inaugural manager, of the domestic violence program. And so, I just said yes, ‘cause, assuming that I knew how to do this, I understood domestic violence, but I quickly realised that I just didn’t understand DV at all. So, in some ways, I wasn’t prepared, and I was prepared.

I was prepared in the sense that I was a clinician and a therapist and a practitioner. And so, I was used to working with people, so I can work with domestic violence perpetrators and victims and children. But I was also prepared because, and I didn’t put these two things together, which I don’t know why I didn’t at the time, but I’d been studying feminist literature and I’d love women’s writing and cultural studies. And I’d been doing that for many years, from the time in 1976 when this lovely lady gave me the book, The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir. So, that kind of opened my eyes up to what was clearly an imbalance between men and women. Social, political, economic imbalance between men and women. So, at a theoretical level, I understood this and it wasn’t until I took on the manager position at Relationships Australia and set myself the task of getting a clearer…what this issue was because you know, and I tell a lot of my training participants this, for a good nine or ten years as a therapist, in the US at that time, I didn’t have any domestic violence in my caseload; nothing. And the reason I didn’t have any domestic violence in my caseload, is because I didn’t ask the questions, I didn’t probe, I didn’t go down that pathway with a man or a woman or a couple or family. I didn’t ask the question. Something as simple as, not just, “How do you two fight with one another, what’s an argument look like and sound like?” But then, asking more questions like, “Is there any pushing, shoving, slapping, anything like that?” And they both go kind of quiet. He looks down, she looks up. And so, I say, “So, has that ever happened?” She may shake her head and then I separate them, and I’ll see them individually at that point ‘cause it’s not very safe to see them together.

So, I didn’t do that. And it wasn’t until I got to Australia, got the manager position, started listening to women’s stories, and that’s really what my education started with. So, I was lucky to have that theoretical background on women’s studies because suddenly at some point, and I’m not sure when, but I know it kind of hit me, hang on, these two things are connected. That is the social, economic and political imbalance of power between men and women and the enormous amount of intimate violence that occurs in relationships. It’s just the manifestation in a relationship of the power imbalance that occurs across society. And I think it’s really hard for the population to understand that, to get away from thinking of this as a marital issue. Because it occurs in an intimate relationship, people just naturally kind of assume that it’s a marital issue and don’t distinguish you know, is it just common couple conflict, or is this domestic violence? Everything is common couple conflict and every, both people are culpable, equally to most people. So that, that is an understood by the general population. And we still have women who do 65, 70 percent, last stats I saw, of the caregiving for example, domestic responsibilities, while also working outside the home as well as inside the home. So, there’s still an imbalance there in terms of, you know, that as well. Most parliaments around the world are male-dominated and I could go on and on, you know, women make 72 cents for every dollar a man makes. So, you still have that imbalance of power. You still have attitudes that blame women and make them culpable for their own violence.

You know, the, victim herself or the survivor doesn’t want to admit that and talk about it. Family don’t want to talk about it because it’s not unlike sexual abuse, it’s something that is difficult to talk about so people keep it quiet. And that promotes the problem as well.

And I think this is going to continue as long as patriarchy generally exists and the sense of, because men tend to use their physical aggression to control their partners through a sense of entitlement.

They feel entitled, you know, to deference, they feel entitled to sex, they feel entitled to, you know, a whole range of things. And because of the way us men are socially conditioned, it’s…violence is only a few steps away as a solution.

If you looked at the research and the evidence base of men’s behaviour change programs, you wouldn’t see a lot of progress. You wouldn’t see men changing based on stats. Now it’s hard. What’s difficult is, what do we mean by change? Does it mean that some guy stops hitting his wife, but he’s still verbally and psychologically abusive and controlling? Does it mean that he hasn’t been picked up by the police for 12 months? So, it’s very hard to kind of, measure change when it comes to men’s abusive behaviour because it’s physical, nonphysical, it’s complex, it’s been wired into someone you know, for most of his life. So that takes quite a long time to get through.

So, as someone who’s worked with hundreds of men in behaviour change programs, I know that men change. I don’t know how much they’ve changed in terms of, do they stop getting arrested by the police, but they still abuse their partners in more covert ways? It’s really hard to know that. There is evidence that men do, just in terms of more wholesale evidence-base in research, that men do make a change, but it’s got to be a collective social kind of decision. And then, the individuals that make the choice to be violent have to somehow be reconditioned. That’s a multigenerational kind of project that, you know, is changing. But we still have, we have very high levels of DV, but a lot of the levels of.. and you can see increases in DV, statistically speaking. But that is because we’re reporting it more often and it’s more visible, more obvious. People can talk about it more often. So that’s a good thing. And that’s a stat that I’d prefer to see than not see, because it means that people are actually increasing their awareness. And increasing, you’ll see many TV shows and movies, mainstream and otherwise, that are dealing with that issue in a more explicit way than ever before.

I know that I know a lot more and I’m more informed and I’m better able to control my, the male conditioning that I got, which was about competition. It’s about being one up. It’s about being entitled. And I, just as a white man, I enjoy the privileges of that entitlement all the time. Being a woman, being a person of colour, being a person with a disability, those are all other forms of oppressiveness that I haven’t got a clue, you know. I try to keep myself in, you know, understand that. But, interesting kind of parallel with racism and domestic violence. They’re both about an imbalance of power. They’re both about what one group thinks they’re entitled to because of way they look, the colour of their skin, their gender, against another. So, they as things like racism changes and we evolve our thinking, I think DV is doing the same thing. So, it’s a parallel process for large, you know, wholesale, discriminatory kind of ideas and thinking.

So, what happened from ‘88, ‘89 when my thinking changed too, was because we introduced a model called the Duluth Model. I got to know the principal architect; her name was Ellen Pence. We brought her over here and we had a big conference and a lot of people came and she talked about the Duluth Model, which was that multi-agency coordinated approach, criminal justice reform initiative, DV as a crime, systems have to change. And that’s when… probably was the day when she said in her own inimitable way, “Come on Dawson, don’t mess around with men’s behaviour change, go for the whole enchilada, go for social justice reform.” And so, I did. And that was a major kind of paradigm shift for me where I thought, “I’ll spend the rest of my life working with men in small rooms trying to change them.” Whereas I’d rather change the world and change the systems that respond to DV in such poor ways. So, we had a, it was a massive kind of grounds well. We started the Domestic Violence Action Groups of WA.

Whether it was Broome or Kalgoorlie or Mandurah, wherever it was at, and most of those people that made up those action groups were survivors of DV, and when you have survivors of DV, when you think about any kind of other social problem, this is a complex social problem, multifactorial in direction, but what made this such a powerful group was that these women; they were true believers. They understood it and they wanted to change the world too. So, within just a few years, we were able to get the state government’s attention. We started the Armadale Domestic Violence Intervention Project, which became a pilot for DV Magistrate Courts that formed over the next five, six, seven years or so. It demonstrated what could be done in terms of, you know, agencies working together in a more collaborative way.

The state government started a policy unit connected to the Women’s Policy Unit at the time. It was the Domestic Violence Prevention Unit. But I saw the DVPU and the state government at the time start what was called the Freedom from Fear campaign. And it was a really large multimedia education campaign that created TV ads, for example, that got many awards around the world for their innovation. And the innovation was that because there had been plenty of education campaigns prior to this in Australia and around the world, but what we did differently, and it was all based on research that, you know, what we looked at was going to work, the question was: we want to attract men who were aware that they maybe have a problem and want to do something about it. They were more vulnerable and more maybe more susceptible to a message. And the message that they developed was, “What’s the impact of your violence, your abuse, your coercive behaviour, your anger and aggression on your children?” And that made the difference. And what we had was we had a group of crisis care workers, and I remember training that group, they kind of worked alongside the regular crisis care workers. So, this was the campaign you had; TV, radio, et cetera, and you had the crisis care workers. And then my organisation, Relationships Australia, was funded to run men’s behaviour change programs. So, the idea was that when men would see the ad on TV, there’d be a number at the bottom, they could call that, someone would speak to them, someone who’d been trained, talk to them, ask them, “Would you like some help with this? Would you like, you know, you’ve identified, you’ve identified a problem, do you want some help?” If they did, they would immediately provide a warm referral to Relationships Australia. We would do an intake over the phone, bring them in, and we got hundreds of men in our groups. And that’s because those men were motivated because of that, that really unique advertising. You know, something, you know, quite different happened.

So, the source of the violence, nine-and-a-half times out of ten, is going to be the man. And so, it’s a gendered issue. And the person responsible for making a choice, ‘cause of all the things you could do in a situation and you choose to use violence as opposed to something else, why? Why make that choice as opposed to another choice? You didn’t do that with your boss at work. You didn’t do that with your friends at the last barbecue, but you’ll do that with your wife. So, why did you make that choice? So, that’s an individual choice and he’s responsible for that. That’s ultimately the person who’s being abusive is responsible for the violence. But then as you go to expand the lens and you look at society, we have a responsibility to change the kind of conditions that promote our cultural, social conditions, the social, political and economic factors that contribute to one group having minority status, i.e. women, and another group that is entitled, that has to change; that has to shift.

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